To the bitter end: a year into Ethiopia's Tigray conflict and both sides vow to continue

After recent advances on their way to Addis Ababa, Tigray's military leaders will not accept a future with Abiy Ahmed in power, analysts say

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As the bloody conflict in Ethiopia’s northernmost Tigray region reaches a grim anniversary, the war shows no sign of slowing.

After reportedly capturing two strategic cities in a major motorway to the capital this week, Tigrayan forces said they were marching on the capital Addis Ababa to remove the government.

On Tuesday, Ethiopia declared a nationwide state of emergency and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has called for all citizens to stop what they were doing and take up any weapon they have.

The government has promised to fight to the end.

"The pit which is dug will be very deep," Mr Abiy told supporters at the military's headquarters in Addis Ababa on Wednesday.

"It will be where the enemy is buried, not where Ethiopia disintegrates. We will bury this enemy with our blood and bones and make the glory of Ethiopia high again."

Calls for a ceasefire by the US and international groups have gone unheeded.

The military commander of the Tigray Defence Force, Gen Tsadkan Gebretensae, this week said there would not be any negotiations.

“The war is on its very end," Gen Tsadkan said. "We have been expressing our consent for peaceful negotiation several times.

"But from now on with who are we going to negotiate for ceasefire? The war itself is ending. After all, Abiy’s regime is a war criminal responsible for crimes committed on Tigray.”

How did the Tigray conflict start?

The war in Tigray enters its second year

The war in Tigray enters its second year
The war in Tigray enters its second year

The conflict began on November 3 last year, when Mr Abiy and allied Eritrean troops and regional forces from the Amhara region launched a military offensive to crush the regional government of Tigray.

The federal government accused the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), who run the region, of attacking a military base.

Almost two million people have fled their homes over the past year, and thousands have been killed.

With aid corridors and all basic services blocked to the war-ravaged region, more than 400,000 people in Tigray are facing famine and 1.8 million are on the brink, the UN has warned.

Government forces occupied the Tigray region for seven months since early December last year.

But in a major turnout on June 28, Tigray forces recaptured the regional capital, Mekelle and liberated much of the region from government forces.

Reports from Amnesty International and international media investigations suggest that acts of ethnic cleansing including massacres, sexual violence and torture of civilians have been committed by government forces during the months they occupied the region.

And allegations of atrocities by Tigray forces during their advance to Amhara and Afar regions have been reported.

The US State Department is preparing to expel Ethiopia from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which grants participants in Sub-Saharan Africa duty-free access to the American market for thousands of products.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet speaks about Tigray. Photo: EPA

A joint investigation by the UN and the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, found all parties are implicated in atrocities.

But human rights groups, experts and independent journalists have criticised the report, claiming it underplays the atrocities in Tigray and omits even the most well-documented crimes.

David Crane, founder of the Global Accountability Network and founding chief prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, an international tribunal, told AP the circumstances under which the report was formed were “automatically suspect."

“What you need when you go into an atrocity zone is a clean slate so outside investigators can look into it neutrally, dispassionately,” Mr Crane said.

“You want to do these things where you don’t build doubt, distrust from the beginning", including among people interviewed.

On the release of the report on Wednesday, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said there was a need for more investigation on the allegations of genocide in Tigray.

A failed ceasefire

Tigrayans march on US Capitol to mark a year of war

Tigrayans march on US Capitol to mark a year of war
Tigrayans march on US Capitol to mark a year of war

Ethiopia’s government had declared a unilateral ceasefire shortly after its troops retreated from the Tigray region in early July.

The Tigray forces did not accept the ceasefire and increased their attacks on neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar.

They claimed the advance was to open an aid corridor and put military pressure on the government to allow humanitarian access to Tigray.

Before the latest military gains, Tigray forces expressed willingness for a negotiated ceasefire, which the Ethiopian government rejected despite international pressure and threat of sanctions.

“We will not sit for negotiation with a terrorist group,” Mr Abiy has said.

In their statement for a negotiated ceasefire on July 4, the Tigray leaders set conditions that included the withdrawal of Amhara and Eritrean troops from border territories of Tigray, unimpeded access to humanitarian aid and the reinstatement of all services to the region.

I believe at this stage the Tigray forces will not accept any kind of negotiation that will secure the continuation of Abiy Ahmed’s regime
Kjetil Tronvoll, Oslo New University College

Since June 29, the Tigray region has been in a siege-like condition, with the UN saying the region has been under a de facto government blockade, and only 10 per cent of humanitarian supplies needed were getting to the region.

In response to the statement, Ethiopia expelled seven higher UN officials, accusing them of meddling in internal affairs.

Kjetil Tronvoll, a professor of conflict studies at the Oslo New University College, said the unilateral ceasefire issued by the Ethiopian government failed because it was not a genuine truce, but a bid for time.

“The war on the ground had continued outside central Tigray and immediately the federal government imposed a full blockage cutting banking, transport, telecommunication and all other services, as well as humanitarian aid to Tigray,” Prof Tronvoll said.

“As proven afterwards, it was a way for the government to buy time to regroup militarily, to recruit new troops and purchase new arms to continue the war in a later phase.

"And I believe at this stage the Tigray forces will not accept any kind of negotiation that will secure the continuation of Abiy Ahmed’s regime.”

Updated: November 13, 2021, 2:13 PM